Everton is hardly lacking firepower coming into its return to the top tier of the FA Women’s Super League.
The club had two of the top three scorers from the FA WSL 2 Spring Series in their ranks, England U-23 striker Claudia Walker and Northern Ireland international Simone Magill, who scored 12 goals between them during the filler leading up to the European Championships.
Now manager Andy Spence has completed the set, adding top scorer Courtney Sweetman-Kirk to his ranks on deadline day last Thursday.
The 26-year-old, born in Leicester, is a former U-23 international herself and coming up with a point to prove after losing her 2016 season to injury. After promotion with Doncaster Rovers Belles in 2015, Sweetman-Kirk went into last season with high hopes and a chance to prove herself at the top level, only for a broken leg picked up in a friendly to end her year.
But the striker showed she hadn’t lost it, scoring nine goals in nine games in the Spring Series, enough for the likes of Everton, Liverpool, and Sunderland to come calling last week.
“It was definitely a hectic day,” Sweetman-Kirk admitted. “But it’s nice to be settled and have a couple of sessions under my belt. The girls have been great, they’re a great bunch, and I think I’ve settled in really well. Andy and Aaron [Little, General Manager] and all the staff have been great so it’s not been difficult to settle in.”
Regarding her new strike partners, Sweetman-Kirk said, “Our attack going forward, if we can get it right, will be frightening. It’s all about the team so if we can have a good season then everybody benefits.”
The former Belles striker had her fair share of options when it came to leaving the Yorkshire club, with neighbors Liverpool particularly keen on signing the proven goal scorer.
So why Everton?
“It’s a team I’ve played against quite a lot, you get a feeling for teams when you come up against them. It’s similar to Doncaster in a way, a family club and a great atmosphere. The vision Andy has and how the club are linked with the men’s side, they’re planning to do big things over the next few years. Andy’s personal plans for my development were important too; he’s a passionate Evertonian and a really passionate football guy.”
Sweetman-Kirk is also acutely aware the clock is ticking on her aspirations to represent country. Football is a fast-moving game and the striker will be 27 at the end of this year, and admits losing a year of her career only furthered her ambitions to seek a new challenge.
“In my head I’m probably still 20,” she laughed. “I’ve definitely got a lot of years left in me but I was at a point where I had to make that move to further my ambitions.
“My aim is to represent England. Doncaster were great with me and I’ve never made it a secret I want to play at the top level. It was nice to leave on a good note with them and to have their blessing.”
Sweetman-Kirk has a tough demeanor, often seen strolling around the pitch on her own before games with her headphones on while her teammates fool around on their phones or take pictures.
The striker is determined to get to the top, but injury hit at the wrong time. Coming into FA WSL 1 as the top scorer the season before in FA WSL 2, Sweetman-Kirk was paired with the returning Jess Sigsworth, England international Natasha Dowie and young loanee Carla Humphrey in Doncaster’s attack last season.
Eventually, a series of circumstances left Humphrey as the only player who made it to the end of the campaign, and Doncaster were relegated with just one win all season.
And Sweetman-Kirk admits the full consequences of her injury so early in the season took a while to sink in.
“Mentally, it was devastating,” she admited. “I didn’t appreciate the severity of the injury, I thought it would be six weeks in a cast and I’d be good to go. It was much more serious and at one point, I didn’t actually know if I’d ever play again.
“I’ve never had a serious injury so I just thought I’d get over it, but the psychological part was the tough bit, being away from the team and the little things you take for granted. It wasn’t a case of being scared to come back, it was a case of holding me back, and I credit the staff at the time for that. I wouldn’t have got through it without them; my family got the raw end of my mood swings, but it makes you feel lucky when you get back.”
Sweetman-Kirk does admit that not getting a “crack” at FA WSL 1 last season was a big motivation in her deadline-day move, adding that “every player has their personal ambitions.”
The new season offers up a similar set of circumstances for the striker, coming into a new season with a newly-promoted side who have to bridge the seemingly ever-increasing gap between the two divisions, but Sweetman-Kirk is confident there’ll be no sense of déjà vu for her.
“There’s a massive buzz around the club at the moment,” she said. “There’s a lot of investment going in, our preseason has been good and Andy’s clear we’re not here to make up the numbers. There’s more teams now to grab points off in my opinion — it’s not about a fight, we’ll be about looking to finish as high as possible.”
Regarding her approach to football now it’s become a job, Sweetman-Kirk admits she’s always been interested in the “psychological” side of the game as she heads into a big season personally.
“For so many years it was just a hobby, but when it’s your job it’s different. I’ve always had that professional mindset, I want to be the best at what I do and I’ll do everything I can on my side to get to those goals.
“I’ll take myself off and walk around the pitch, I’ll visualize positions I can score from, everyone has a routine and that helps me. My ultimate motivation is to be the best version of me, whether that’s football or my day-to-day life.”
Sweetman-Kirk could make her debut against the club she turned down, as Everton start the new FA WSL season on Friday night under the lights against local rivals Liverpool.
The 26-year-old will also return to her former club Doncaster Belles in the Continental Cup, but says once she’s on the pitch it’s down to business on both occasions.
“I’ve got to work hard in training this week to earn my place. We’re not short of attacking options. It’s something I’ll relish, I love the pressure and the big games and if I can get on and score I’m sure it will put me in favor with the fans.”
Regarding the Belles, Sweetman-Kirk added, “It was nice, as I said, to leave on a good note. I had some great years and some of my best football memories there. It will be nice to see the girls but when that whistle goes I’m an Everton player and we’ll want to win, there will be no crossed loyalties.”